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The view at the final rally of Mexico's frontrunner for president

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today is the last day of campaigning before Mexicans head to polls in a presidential election on Sunday. The election will be historic because the two main candidates are women. For the first time in Mexico's more than 200-year history, the country's likely to have a woman president. NPR's Eyder Peralta is in Mexico City. Hi, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

(CROSSTALK)

SHAPIRO: There's a cacophony behind you. Where are you? What's going on?

PERALTA: So I'm at the Zocalo, which is the main square here in Mexico City. And today, as you said, by law, is the last day that politicians in this country can talk about politics, can campaign. So I am at the final rally for the front-runner in this race, Claudia Sheinbaum, and this square is absolutely full. I've seen drummers and just a sea of people marching through the streets with flags and signs that say, we women have arrived.

And one of the charming things I've seen are these dolls of the presidential candidates. This is a country that is used to seeing dolls of the painter Frida Kahlo or of the Virgin Guadalupe. But today we're seeing something that this country has never seen in 200 years. These dolls - dolls of women candidates - presidential candidates. And they come with a pretty special accessory, and that's a presidential sash.

SHAPIRO: All right, we'll get back to that idea of women have arrived in Mexico. But before we do, tell us what the big issues have been in this race.

PERALTA: Well, the biggest issue is security. Mexico remains one of the most violent countries in the world, and it is a country in the middle of a bloody war between drug cartels. It's also one of the things that the political parties differ on. They both say they want to fix it. The opposition says it wants to deal with it in part by demilitarizing the country, and the ruling party says it wants the military to continue controlling civilian police. Because it is the military - because they believe it is only the military that's capable of training such a vast number of security officers and that it is the only institution they can trust.

There's also a lot of talk about democracy and the potential for democratic backsliding. But if you look at the polls and if you talk to people on the streets, they give all that talk a yawn. The issue that seems to be motivating voters is what's coming into their pockets. The current government here is very popular, and that's in large part because it has doubled the minimum wage and has instituted new welfare programs that give cash transfers to older people, to single mothers, to students. And many Mexicans are super happy about that. They say that those programs have changed their lives.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about the two women who are the front-runners in this race.

PERALTA: Both are engineers, and they both came to politics later in life after having worked in different fields. The opposition candidate, Xochitl Galvez, is a computer engineer. She has a rags-to-riches story. She went from selling Jell-O in her village to running a successful company to becoming a senator in Mexico to now running for president.

Claudia Sheinbaum has a Ph.D. in energy engineering. And before she entered politics in the year 2000, she was an academic. She was writing papers about the environment and sustainability. She is the front-runner in this race, and that is in large part because she's the protege of the current president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. And as I said, he is very popular at the moment here, and Sheinbaum is running on his record.

SHAPIRO: And just briefly, what have the women voters you've spoken to said about the historic nature of this race?

PERALTA: So I have to say, I'm a little surprised about that. I talked to women. I've talked to women of all walks of life, and the reaction to the history of this moment has been muted. I mean, you do hear, you know, women have always worked harder, so this is our moment. But I have also heard just as many Mexicans, especially women, express reservations.

(CROSSTALK)

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Eyder Peralta, reporting from the Zocalo in Mexico City ahead of that election on Sunday. Thank you so much, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thank you. Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.